Oscar Directors: Von Sternberg, Josef

Josef Sternberg was born May 29, 1894, in Vienna, to a poor Orthodox Jewish family; the aristocratic “von” was added to his name by a Hollywood producer who thought it would look better on a cinema marquee); he died in 1969.

At the age of seven, he was brought to the U.S., where he received part of his education in Jamaica, Queens. He subsequently returned to Vienna to complete his schooling but was back in New York at the age of 17, when he found a job as a film patcher for the World Film Company in Fort Lee, New Jersey. He gradually advanced to film cutter, writer, assistant director, and advisor to the company's boss, William S. Brady. In 1917, he joined the Army Signal Corps and made a number of training films. After the Armistice, he traveled in the U.S. and Europe, working as an assistant to various directors. He settled in Hollywood in 1924.

After gaining some experience directing scenes unfinished by other directors, Sternberg got together with a young British stage actor, George K. Arthur, who wanted to invest $5,000 to subsidize his own screen debut. Sternberg had a screenplay ready, and “The Salvation Hunters” was shot on location, at the docks of San Pedro Bay, on a shoestring budget, with no-name stars. His naturalistic depiction of the world of the waterfront derelicts was a novelty in American cinema, gaining him attention in Hollywood for his ability to demonstrate an original visual style, noted for its interplay of light and shade.

Mary Pickford wanted him to direct her next picture, but they couldn't agree on a subject and on an approach. Sternberg signed up with MGM, but the studio didn't like the way he directed “The Exquisite Sinner,” and had the film remade by another director. The same happened to his second assignment, “The Masked Bride,” and his contract was discontinued by mutual consent.

Charlie Chaplin then asked him to direct a vehicle for his protg, known as “The Sea Gull” and “A Woman of the Sea.” Sternberg completed the production to his own satisfaction, but Chaplin found the film too sophisticated for general audiences and it was never released.

Sternberg's cycle of misfortune was broken in 1926, when he joined Paramount as assistant director. He was assigned to direct “Underworld,” based on Ben Hecht's story, Hollywood's first serious look at gangsters. The film was executed in Sternberg's personal style, characterized by bold pictorialism and rather flimsy plot.

In this and future films, he let the visual form itself rather than a conventional plot express the content. Pictorial compositions and light and shadow effects are used to illuminate the characters and to express their motivations; Sternberg used the camera as a painter's brush or a poet's pen.

Steinberg has been criticized as a mannered, self-indulgent stylist with a trivial, detached vision of the world. But even his detractors could not deny the dramatic power of his vision and the validity of his experimentation in the juxtaposition of shadow and light to express shifts of mood and inner action. During his peak years (192735), he was the undisputed master of the American screen, an inspired artist and superb technician.

In 1930, von Sternberg went to Germany to direct Emil Jannings in UFA's first talkie, “The Blue Angel.” Searching for an actress to exude the raw sexuality of the seductive vamp, Lola Lola, he discovered Marlene Dietrich on the Berlin stage. It was the beginning of a fiveyear Pygmalion-Galatea (some say SvengaliTilby) association, during which Steinberg molded Marlene's onand offscreen personality to conform to an image of his conception, thus transforming her from a plumpfrdulein into a glamorous and sensuous star. The Blue Angel, a classic of screen erotica, was a tremendous international success.

Dietrich followed Stemberg to Hollywood, leaving behind her husband and child. The Dietrich films von Sternberg directed there–Morocco, Dishonored, Shanghai Express, Blonde Venus, The Scarlet Empress, and The Devil Is a Woman–constituted cumulatively the peak achievement of his career. They all bore his unmistakable personal signature, characterized by his visual bravura and the ever-present scrims, veils, nets, fog, or smoke between subject and camera.

Von Sternberg was among the most enigmatic of Hollywood's directors, a volatile man of mystery and contradiction, proud and arrogant, stubborn and secretive. He was the last of the Hollywood directors who dressed the part, complete with boots and sometimes even a turban.

His films rarely had wide commercial appeal and after his working relationship with Dietrich and Paramount ended, in 1935, he found the major studios unresponsive to his ideas. After making two films for Columbia, an interesting version of Crime and Punishment and an adaptation of an operetta The King Steps Out, he went to England in 1937. There he began his most ambitious production, an adaptation of Robert Graves's historical novel “I, Claudius,” starring Charles Laughton in the title role. The production, under the aegis of Alexander Korda, was illfated from the start. After several weeks of filming, the production was halted as a direct result of an injury suffered by its female lead, Merle Oberon, in an automobile accident. For reasons that remain mysterious, the production was never resumed and the film remained unfinished.

In the late 60s, BBC-TV in England produced a featurelength documentary about the “I, Claudius” mystery, entitled “The Epic That Never Was.” It was shown in the US on educational television. The many excerpts from the unfinished film, which were shown in the documentary, suggest that this might have been Sternberg's greatest work and one of the finest works in cinema history.

Returning to the U.S. in 1938, Von Sternberg agreed to make two films for MGM. On the first, another director replaced him after several days of shooting. He completed the second with mediocre results. Von Stemberg retained his form with “The Shanghai Gesture” (1941) but his subsequent Hollywood films, made unhappily and halfheartedly for Howard Hughes, were infrequent and rather routine. The most important achievement in that later phase was a film he made in 1953 in Japan, Ana-Ta-Han (“The Saga of Anatahan”), a dramatized recreation of a true WWII incident about a group of Japanese marines who continued to man their positions on an island for seven years after the conclusion of the War because they refused to believe the war had ended in Japan's defeat.

In the mid-1950s, Sternberg went into semi-retirement in his modem Los Angeles mansion and spent much of his last years traveling to international film festivals and lecturing in universities.

In 1965, he published a bitter autobiography, Fun in a Chinese Laundry. He died of a heart ailment at the age of 75.

Oscar Alert

Josef von Sternberg was nominated twice for the Best Director Oscar, in 1930-31 for “Morocco,” and in 1931-2 for “Shanghai Express,” both film stared Marlene Dietrich, with whom he made seven pictures, all in the 1930s.

The first time, he lost out to Norman Taurog, winning for “Skippy,” and the second to Frank Borzage for “Bad Girl.”